Can President Obama Exhibit Leadership From Below?

So Obama won, McCain lost. Republicans are out. Democrats are in.  What now? Obama has campaigned on change, on being the challenger, on being different. He has deployed a web savvy campaign strategy focused on micro contributions from hoards in addition to, not instead of, large donations. All of this is very trendy, very smart and very well known by now. See, for instance, Eric Legale’s blog on Obama as the President of the Internet Generation.

What few have pointed out is that Candidate Obama preached and practiced Leadership From Below. For a quick tutorial, check my post on What my Daughter Taught me about Leadership. But how can a President Obama exhibit Leadership From Below? Isn’t that a contradiction in terms? After all, it is arguably the most powerful position in the world. Why would the President need Leadership From Below?

In fact, there are five reasons why Obama still needs the bottom-up perspective:

1. Formal power if fine, but not enough

Leadership from below does not mean that you cannot have formal power. It does not mean that you need to be the underdog. It does not mean begging to lead or begging people to support you. Rather, it simply says: to enact change, I need to inspire followership. The recent book Followership: How Followers Are Creating Change and Changing Leaders by Harvard Kennedy School‘s Barbara Kellerman is right on. You can only lead when you are allowing people around you to voice their concerns. Leadership From Below means never assuming you are the only voice in the room, even if you always have the last word.

2.Macchiavelli is out of date

Macchiavelli, who has been the elite’s unchallenged management guru since the 15th century said it is better to be feared than to be loved. The reason is that when you are loved, you can still be fooled, but when you are feared any challenger is a fool. The trouble with fear is that it is very unpredictable. It was ok to be a feared dictator in the Italian Renaissance, it is not ok to be a feared President in 2009. Public perception is volatile. When markets operate in fear, they collapse. When people are afraid, they turn to terror. When co-workers fear you, they simply change employer. In short, Machiavelli is out of date. Leaders should recognize that centuries have passed and complexity has increased. Not by much, I would say, but enough that it is safer to be loved than feared.

3. The US has a complex constituency

Being President does not only mean being the President of a country. You are also a global actor. The case could be made that there are more Obama supporters who did not have the right to vote than did, if you count 2/3 of citizens in Europe, and many, many across the world. Seldom has a campaign invigorated so many non voting parties, people, and pundits. While the US President does have formal power over the US mainland, his powers over the world are severely limited. Well, his powers are limited unless he plays his cards well. I believe the George W. Bush era slogan was “if you are not with us you are against us”. It didn’t play so well. Leadership from below is the way to go when you are building partnerships, trying to enlist opponents, working through intermediaries, in short, when engaging in diplomacy.

4. To enact change, a leader must be consistent

Leaders without formal authority need tech savvy, listening skills, social antennas, and a good pitch. With these you can master any situation. Many Presidents have had at least the latter two, but have let all of these skills go when they took office. But Obama will need to maintain them. The credibility of his message depends on staying open, approachable, and diplomatic. The formal authority of a Presidential office might stay largely the same when a new President takes office, but what he or she makes of it does not.

5. Military and financial crises demand buy-in

It would be easy to think that the military and the financial sector are best governed top-down. After all, employees in both sectors are well used to taking orders from above. However, it seems clear to most people that this approach has not worked and will not work, at least not now. The US is slowly coming to terms with a world where followership is more important than leadership. In his new book Tribes, marketing guru Seth Godin talks about the renewed importance of the tribal type of leadership in contemporary society. We want a leader, but we want a stake in where we are being led and why. When the military spends most of its time winning hearts and minds instead of firing bullets, and the largest banks suddenly are state owned, the model is about to change. Stakeholder leadership is suddenly in fashion. As citizens we have bought ourselves a share in the the financial meltdown. As citizens of the world, we have a stake in reducing terror and unrest. A President that does not see it as his first priority to win buy in for his views, will fail. Unilateralism is out. Multilateralism is in. Buyout is out. Buyin is in.

May Obama and his advisers read this blog and have a great day. Enjoy the first day as President elect. Best wishes, and, my advice is, stay the underdog!

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About trondau
Trond A. Undheim, Ph.D, is a co-founder of Yegii, Inc. and Vidian Ventures. A former Director of MIT Startup Exchange & Sloan Senior Lecturer, WPP & Oracle exec., EU National Expert, and serial entrepreneur (VC, incubator, think tank, search engine), ), he is an active participant in the global venture ecosystem. His first book was Leadership From Below (2008). Trond holds a PhD on the future of work & AI/cognition.

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